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From The Socialist newspaper, 5 July 2007


by Maxim Gorky

Philistines was written in 1902. Its author, Maxim Gorky, was a Marxist and a close associate of Lenin up to 1913 when he broke from the Bolsheviks.

Philistines was his first play and is charged with the energy of a society on the brink of revolution. It depicts the clash between the old order represented by the irascible bigot Vassily Bessemenov (a superb performance from Phil Davis), loyal to the church and the tsar; and the coming new order represented by the young radicals including Vassily's son Pyotr, just arrested for his part in a demonstration.

More than 30,000 students struck in 1902 in a protest against attempts by the state to curb their political activities. Vassily's daughter Tanya (Ruth Wilson) is the victim caught between these two worlds. She even botches her attempted escape. Vassily's "values" are collapsing around him and he rails against all those he sees as responsible - his family, his tenants, the Jews, and most of all the socialists.

Ultimately the student idealists, reflecting the outlook of the young Gorky himself, seemed doomed to a utopian vision that could never be realised. The entry onto the scene of the Russian working class, led by the Bolsheviks, would soon change all of that and sweep away the voices of reaction fifteen years later.

The play is teeming with life and character in a perfect portrait of pre-revolutionary Russia. Howard Davies' flawless production together with a fresh modern translation means that put simply Philistines is the finest piece of theatre you will see this year.

Philistines is at the Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London until 18 August.

The Last Confession

by Roger Crane

The Last Confession is based around real events when Pope John Paul I died after just 33 days as head of the Catholic Church in 1978.

A little known Cardinal from Venice, he was a compromise candidate who turned out to be just the sort of liberal the hard-liners feared most. He wanted to change the attitude of the Catholic Church to artificial birth control - an act of sacrilege to the reactionaries.

His justification - "every hour one thousand children under the age of five die of malnutrition. By this time tomorrow thirty thousand children will be dead". He also tried to begin the process of removing the most conservative elements from any influence in the Vatican.

Only days later he was dead. No official investigation was conducted, no autopsy was performed, and the Vatican's press release about the cause of death was found to be largely false.

Through his close ally Cardinal Benelli (a remarkable performance from David Suchet) the story surrounding these events unfolds as his last confession was heard.

The play is a searing indictment on the Catholic Church, stripping away the veneer of religious piety surrounding these senior clerics. They all refer to the fight against communism but show they were in no fit state to fight anyone else, racked as they were by bitter internal rivalries, political manoeuvrings and their own crises of faith.

This is the first play of New York based lawyer Roger Crane who dissects the documentary evidence available with the precision and scrutiny of a lawyer.

I'll leave you with the question - did the Catholic Church elders have their "spiritual leader" murdered in 1978?

The Last Confession is at the Haymarket Theatre, Haymarket, London until 15 September.

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Two plays reviewed by Mark Baker: 'Philistines' and 'The Last Confession'


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